Course:GEOG352/2020/Urban Agriculture in Nairobi's slums, Kenya

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According to the United Nations, hunger is rising across the world, and this has led to more populations being undernourished. In 2015, 784 million people were undernourished, and by 2017 this number had risen to 821 million, which counts for 1 in every 9 people[1]. Rapid urbanization within the global south has led to a greater pressure on resources and infrastructure, which ultimately results in hunger disproportionally affecting the urban poor[2]. Unlike their rural counterparts, populations living in urban areas are vulnerable to hunger because they do not have the space to grow their own food. This is why innovative urban agriculture practices are vital in mitigating hunger and undernourishment rates amongst the urban poor.

We will examine an urban agriculture practice implemented in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya; analyzing it from the perspectives of food security, environmental health risks and sustainability. Through this case study we will offer reflections that highlight the vitality of urban agriculture in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2), which aims to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”[1]. Urban agriculture showcases the importance of the interplay between formal and informal infrastructure in order to alleviate poverty.

The Kibera slums are located in Nairobi Province, approximately 7 km from the city center. Kibera is informally divided into 10 villages and occupies approximately 2.5 km².
Kibera slum


Importance of Urban Agriculture

Urban agriculture (UA) can be defined as the production of food and related products in urban and peri-urban areas, usually cultivated for consumption in those same areas [3]. It is a livelihood that allows people of the geographical south and east to combat issues of food insecurity while fostering social resilience and contributing to sustainable ecosystems and food services [3]. There has been a global focus on UA in recent years, and its importance is being underscored by global climate change and rapid urbanization [3]. We will examine sack gardening in Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, to provide insight into the complexities of UA in Kenya, where 56% of the urban population lives in slums [4].

Situating UA in the socio-economic context of Kibera

Kibera is the product of historical phenomena such as colonialism, apartheid, and labour migration, which are all deeply entrenched within the power dynamics observed in the community. Additionally, informality is a key aspect of its social and economic context. Originally, the land on where Kibera is settled was occupied by former indigenous soldiers of the British Crown. They could be expelled at any moments. Informality leaves people within the geographical south in general more vulnerable to issues such as hunger, therefore incentivizing them to develop local urban agriculture practices such as sack gardening.

Sack gardening as an UA practice in Kibera

Ramadhan Abdulrahman, a member of the NYS Kambi Muruu sacking farming initiative in Kibera, taking care of his crop.

As its name suggests, sack gardening consists of growing plants in tall sacks filled with soils. A 50kg sack can sustain 20-40 plants [5]. The benefits of sack gardening include saving space, having flexible mobility of the gardens and an efficient use of water. The development of sack gardening in Kibera has been incentivized by the National Youth Service (NYS), and so many farmers receive support from the Ministry which subsidizes this project for them.[6]  

This form of urban agriculture is particularly well adapted to the informal context of Kibera since the yearly flooding in the slums forces the residents to move away and return back to their settlements depending on the season. As a result, sack gardening is more resilient to such changes and is economically feasible for the urban poor. Furthermore, it does not only represent an opportunity to address food security but also to provide accessible employment to youth, which has the potential to undermine criminality and to empower women by providing them with more economic independence.  This shows the interconnectedness of complex urban issues and its implications to the social sustainability of communities. We will analyze the implications of sack gardening on the Kibera community through the perspective of food security, environmental health risk and finally, sustainability.

Case Study of Kibera

Food Security

Impact of sack gardening in Kiberan slum of Nairobi on food security through dietary vegetable diversification

According to the Food Agriculture Organization, food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”[7]. This definition captures four components of food security including access, availability, use and stability. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, these components are key in ensuring that urban citizens, especially within informal settlements are food secure.

In the years 2011 to 2012, 85% of slum households in Nairobi were found to be food insecure; of which 50% were categorized as severely insecure[8]. The high rate of food insecurity can be attributed to chronic poverty rates in slums that is further perpetuated by national political shocks such as the 2007-2008 post election crisis in Kenya.

However, innovative urban agriculture practices such as sack gardening have had significant improvements on food security rates in slum households. A study by Gallaher et al, found that Kiberan sack gardening increased the social capital of its residents that consequently increased their food security[5]. This is because strong neighbourhood cohesions allowed for food sharing across households in times of need. Additionally, sack gardening increased the vegetable consumption diversity in Kibera households[5]. Sack gardening in Kibera introduced more sources of essential amino acids to households who are otherwise unable to purchase and consume meat products[5]. Although sack gardening does not supply a large proportion of household food due to its scalability constrains, it is associated with overall dietary diversity and the alleviation of extreme coping mechanisms that are otherwise practiced amongst the urban poor in Nairobi. As a result it has improved three out of the four components of food security i.e. access, availability and use.

The environmental health risks

While sack gardening is a means of improving local livelihoods and increasing household food security, it can also be seen as an activity that potentially exposes people to a variety of environmental health risks. Not only is land and space scarce, but finding areas free from contamination can also be difficult. [6]

Some of the challenges that were identified by the beneficiaries of this initiative include plant pests/diseases, lack of access to pest control and water. Additionally, the sanitation system in Kibera is very poor and thus sack gardening can risk introducing pathogens to households. Laboratory tests conducted on soil, irrigation water and foliar samples, from sack production, at the household level or in the markets, have shown that soils and leaves were contaminated by Escherichia coli (fecal bacteria).[9] This can increase the morbidity and mortality associated with consuming contaminated foods in the urban poor.

However considerable efforts have been organized to inform Kibera residents about their environmental health risks. According to Eva Kadzo, a public health officer and community strategist with the Ministry of Health, the environmental risks associated with sack farming in Kibera has discouraged residents from planting crops near dump sites and sewers, which had been a common practice in the area.[6] Additionally, local authorities and NGOs have sensitized farmers to these health risks through educational campaigns in the slums.

Levels of arsenic (As) in kale are geographically correlated with where the soil was collected. Kale sampled from farmers sack gardens in Gatwekera, Makina, Mashimoni, and Soweto East exceeded the FAO’s recommended limit for human consumption of 0.1 ppm

A remaining concern in terms of environmental risks is the exposure to heavy metal contamination. Gallaher et al. [10] illustrates the need to constantly examine the potential exposure to biological contamination and environmental risks such as heavy metals in sack gardening systems. Furthermore, his research demonstrates the differences in what farmers and non-farmers perceived to be health risks and the actual risks in terms of measured contamination of the food crops. Farmers’ perceptions of risks focused primarily on visible contaminates, such as trash in the soil, or dust and flies on the leaves of their plants, which they believed could result in illnesses, such as stomach aches or diarrhea [10]. However, the major contaminants found in samples of vegetables from their sack gardens were heavy metals, often at concentrations above the recommended levels for human consumption [10]. This gap between farmers' perceptions of environmental risk and actual risk raises questions about how to appropriately promote urban agriculture strategies while being conscious of the inherent trade-offs in farming within densely populated and polluted urban areas.


It is important to evaluate the sustainability of sack gardening as a solution to food insecurity when looking at urban agriculture in the Kibera slums. This can be done by using the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) as a tool to evaluate whether or not sack gardening “can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets” thus making it a sustainable measure with longevity[11]. The SLA is essentially a bottom-up approach that views the assets held by the poor to “modify their livelihood strategies”[12]. These assets include natural, physical, human, financial, and social capital.  Although it is difficult for those living in the slums to mobilize all capital assets, they have done so effectively. For example, although natural assets such as land and water are difficult to obtain, the farmers utilize both informal and formal infrastructure to meet their need. Other assets like soil are easier to obtain, in terms of cost, but present challenges when it comes to transportation. Similarly, although sacks are cheap, other physical assets such as fertilizers and pesticides are more difficult to obtain[12]. The farmers have overcome these issues by getting these materials from NGOs such as Solidarités International, and by putting their funds together amongst neighbours[12]. Furthermore, sack gardening has created social capital. Sack gardening allows for better social cohesion because it encourages group membership through shared farming activities[13]. Farmers also gain more social capital by reducing the risk of hunger[13]. Additionally, sack gardening has created human capital as farmers share their farming knowledge[12]. Finally, households can use sack gardening to build up their financial capital, in Kibera 30% of households stated that they received some added income from sack gardening[12]. Households that engaged in sack gardening also made financial gains from as they needed to spend less money on food since they could grow it themselves[12]. Ultimately, sack gardening showcases how the urban poor in the Kibera slums mobilize and maneuver their assets to make more sustainable livelihood.

Lessons Learned

Urban agriculture has improved Kiberan household food security in many ways, but evidently can bring along its own set of complications and failures in addressing underlying issues of chronic poverty in Kibera and beyond. Examining sack gardening as case study reveals the challenges of growing crops in densely populated slums lacking access to space, clean water, and soil that is not contaminated with heavy metals and biological contaminants. However it also highlights the benefits that urban agriculture can offer, especially for the urban poor; Kibera sack gardeners efficiently use the water and space they have available to them to increase their social capital and access to nutritious, traditional produce.

Understanding the benefits and challenges associated with sack gardening in Kibera can offer ways forward for improving food security through both improved methods of urban agriculture and through larger-scale political action. Governments and NGOs can use knowledge of the factors that both cause and offer solutions to urban food insecurity in slums and informal settlements. Rather than just focusing on one single solution to food insecurity, the complexities of the issue need to be addressed. No one approach can be seen as a complete solution to the problem, as it is multifaceted and is affected by countless interacting systems and histories: political instability and market prices, rapid urbanization, labour migration, unemployment, and the aftershocks of colonialism, Structural Adjustment Programs and apartheid. Therefore, food insecurity should be addressed in an informed, contextualized, ‘systems thinking’ approach. The shortage of literature and research can also be addressed to support system improvements.

Conclusions can also be drawn about the relationship between bottom-up approaches, top-down approaches, and sustainability in addressing issues of food security. Sack gardening in Kibera is incentivized by the National Youth Services and supported in many cases by the Ministry, providing benefits to practitioners: particularly women and youth [6]. This relationship reflects the interconnectedness of top-down and bottom-up, or, formal and informal systems with regards to food production and distribution. This collaboration can also be expanded by the government to address chronic poverty and unemployment, waste collection services and water systems in certain areas.


  1. 1.0 1.1 UN Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. Goal 2: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. (n.d.).
  2. Peprah, K., Akongbangre, J., & Amoah, S,. (2014) Sack Farming: Innovation for Land Scarcity Farmers in Kenya and Ghana. International Journal of Innovative Research & Studies, 3(5), 30-44.  
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Winklerprins, A. (2017). Defining and theorizing urban agriculture. Global urban agriculture. Retrieved from
  4. World Bank. (2014). Population living in slums (% of urban population) - Kenya. Retrieved from
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Courtney Maloof Gallaher, Kerr, J., Njenga, M., & Antoinette. (2013, September). Urban agriculture, social capital, and food security in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from ResearchGate website:
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Mayoyo, Patrick (18 May 2015). "How to grow food in a slum: lessons from the sack farmers of Kibera". The Guardian.
  7. Food Security Information for Action Practical Guides. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  8. Kimani-Murage, E. W., Schofield, L., Wekesah, F., Mohamed, S., Mberu, B., Ettarh, R., … Ezeh, A. (2014). Vulnerability to Food Insecurity in Urban Slums: Experiences from Nairobi, Kenya. Journal of Urban Health, 91(6), 1098–1113.
  9. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013). "Soaring food prices and nutrition in urban areas- Sack gardens in Kenya" (PDF).
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Gallaher, Courtney Maloof (2013). Real or Perceived: The Environmental Health Risks of Urban Sack Gardening in Kibera Slums of Nairobi, Kenya. EcoHealth.
  11. Farrington, J., Ramasut, T., & Walker, J. (2002). Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches in Urban Areas: General Lessons, with Illustrations from Indian Cases . Overseas Development Institute. Working Paper 162.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 Gallaher, C. (2012) Livelihoods, food security and environmental risk: sack gardening in the Kibera slums of Nairobi. PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Gallaher, C., Kerr, J., Njenga, M., Karanja, N., & Winklerprins, A. (2013). Urban agriculture, social capital, and food security in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Agriculture and Human Values, 30(3), 389–404. doi: 10.1007/s10460-013-9425-y


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